January 21st, 2010
Just as there is a myth that creativity is possessed by a small minority of individuals, so too is it becoming an accepted truth that schools are the number one enemy to creativity. So says Ken Robinson in a TEDtalk entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” So says Beatrix Potter, who supposedly wrote, “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” God help us if they are right.
The story goes like this: children are creative – adults are not. Children play at games that they have made up; adults sit in boardrooms and nod their heads. According to one website, whereas children see sixty alternatives in any one situation, adults see anywhere from three to six. What is responsible for this differential? Schools, of course. There are even poster boys/girls for the “I am creative because I didn’t go to school” club – Mozart, Shakespeare (left school at age 13, it is suggested), and, yes, Beatrix Potter. According to Ken Robinson, schools want right answers. Wrong answers are frowned upon (except in art, where all answers are right). No one gets marks for taking risks, so it is best just to play along, narrow the field of alternatives as much as possible, avoid embarrassment , and move on to university.
Perhaps in an earlier age, a principal in my position would have conceded that schools are not in the business of producing creative souls. When I grew up, suggesting to my parents that I wanted to devote my life to creativity would have been received like news that I had joined a commune. Creativity had its place – in classes dedicated to visual arts and drama (not so much music – that was all about practicing).
But all of that is changing. Daniel Pink, in his enormously influential book, A Whole New Mind, enshrines creativity among the “six essential aptitudes on which professional success and personal fulfillment now depend”, according to the website that hawks his book. Creativity will become the differentiator in the new economy. In a flat world of rapid and widespread movement of information, and the outsourcing of jobs to developing countries like India, creativity will be the key ingredient necessary to give North Americans the edge. Get creative, or get replaced.
More than that, there is a general feeling that creativity is the one thing that can save the world. The more that humans learn about the complexities of the problems that we face – whether they be global warming, large-scale armed conflicts, or terrorism – the more we feel the need to find someone who can break the pattern, crack the code, and capture the imagination of those who will have to participate in the solutions.
So, are schools sapping our youth of their creativity? I think not. There is little evidence that adults were so incredibly creative before the advent of schools. And what of all of the people who did manage to survive schools and went on to compose symphonies, paint pictures, and design buildings?
Arguably, creativity would have difficulty finding a foothold in a society that lacked schools. Creativity is not merely about coming up with the new and different. Every time I try to sing something around the house, it ends up being quite novel, but none of my kids think I’m very creative. If creativity were merely about being the source of that which is unique, we’d all score high. Creativity has an added value dimension. A creative person produces things – ideas, patterns, physical entities – that are new and have value. And that is where schools come in.
Schools are about value. The reason adults come up with three to six alternatives to the child’s 60 alternatives is because the adult has, through years of schooling, learned that the 54 to 57 other alternatives have no value. Who is more likely to have a better hold on value –a person who has had her horizons broadened, has been able to study history and discovered how human actions lead to results, sometimes momentous, sometimes horrendous, has grasped the underpinnings and patterns that explain the universe, or someone who has been led pell-mell by his own desires and devices, the biases of her upbringing, and the limitations of his imagination? Creativity is not the child of ignorance, but the offspring of a liberal education. It doesn’t matter how uniquely your mind works, it won’t have any impact on engineering if you haven’t first understood science.
But is there a recipe for mixing the new with that which is already valued? Can a school guarantee that its students will be thinking outside the box when they leave the box (to enter another box, mind you)? I believe that there are a few principles that we can follow to ensure that students both know what is known and aren’t chained down by that knowledge.
In the first place, schools need to begin with a reflective and reform-minded approach to its own curriculum and teaching practices. We have to strive to be relevant; the box cannot be so outdated that students won’t engage in the task of working out who they are in relation to what is.
Secondly, an acceptance of the new, the quirky, and the unorthodox must permeate the institution from the top down. (Anyone who has seen me dress up for Halloween can attest to my quirkiness!) Risk-taking must become a habit; it must be modeled to the staff and the students. Teachers need to be encouraged to change things up, to remain fresh and relevant.
Thirdly, schools need to foster an interdisciplinary approach – in thinking and in programming. The creative solutions to the complex problems being faced in the world will come from those who can see the problems from a combination of disciplinary viewpoints. We need to mix up our staff in meetings, design our curriculum to promote interdisciplinary thinking, and encourage our students to maintain an interest in all disciplines.
Fourthly, and related to the need to create an interdisciplinary approach, we need to continue to foster learning that is collaborative. The survival of the world cannot rely upon solitary individuals to think up solutions. As Margaret Mead is frequently quoted to say, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” We tend to think of creativity as springing from the individual, perhaps because when we think of creativity we narrowly focus upon the arts – Picasso, Beethoven, and Shakespeare stand for us as models of creativity. But consider how creativity works in real life – the creative forces of marriage, business partnerships, friendships, think tanks, and working groups. Wherever there is discourse, there is the potential to forge plans and ideas that transcend the limited horizons of the individual.
Fifthly, we owe it to our children to introduce them to the very best of the creative forces that have walked the earth. Just as the discourse between two or more individuals can spawn new ideas, so too can the individual’s engagement with the works of the greats inspire creativity. As I said to my son, a young aspiring author, you will not become a great writer if all you read is “Captain Underpants”. Our children deserve to be touched deeply, to encounter something of the eternal, and to feel the magic that comes when greatness is encountered.
And finally, we have to give our students the opportunity to be creative in every discipline. As a recent article suggested to me, science is for arguing. Math is for wondering. Physical education is for the exploration of the body and space. Modern languages should allow us to create with the whole world. Every test and every class must have open-ended questions.
Fortunately, I see sure signs of such an education in our school. Teachers are working collaboratively to develop a curriculum that is relevant and significant. Risks are being taken by teachers to ensure that all students experience learning. The school has embraced an interdisciplinary approach, especially in the Middle and Primary Years programmes. Students are guided through collaborative learning from the youngest grades to the Grade 12 “Group IV project”, in which the four sciences come together to study the environment. Students read Shakespeare, listen to Stravinsky, and research their artistic heritage in developing their own voice and vision to share with the world.
And I end with the experience that impelled me to write this piece – watching music videos produced in one of our grade 12 math classrooms. That’s right. Our IB Diploma math teacher, Fatima Remtulla, has students create music videos to illustrate specific math rules. Go figure.
So the next time you marvel at a wonderful canvas, beautiful score of music, clever advertising campaign, or amazing technological gizmo, think not only of the creative genius that developed it, but think of the incredible school that made it all possible, a school that didn’t lose sight of the possibility of the ‘new’ in the midst of all the ‘right’ answers.